If you witnessed the scenes at Les Halles on Black Friday (I certainly did not, and glad to see that French lawmakers are pushing to ban it) then you’ll know that consumerism is (sadly) the new religion of the day. But in that very central quartier of the 1st, the old religion serenely surveys the new in the form of Saint-Eustache, the 16th-century church occupying the spot just next to the monstrous undulation that is the modern shopping centre.
Now let’s get it out of the way. I’m not a religious person per se though I do possess a healthy sense of spiritual curiosity and respect for tradition, and especially at this time of year I love ducking into one of the city’s churches to have a wander around, light a candle or reminisce about carolling in the school Christmas concert as a young pup. There’s nothing more welcoming than a religious building, and when it comes to Paris, its churches are buildings like any other – old as the hills and chock-full of history. So religious or quite the opposite, you’d do well to head inside to appreciate the tranquil beauty, and give all the plastic tat in the shopping centre a wide berth whilst you’re at it.
As we discovered in the last post, Les Halles was the site of a medieval food market famously captured in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and finally dismantled in 1971 (see freize above and picture, left). But commerce and worship have been close siblings as way back as 1213 when the first chapel was built next to the original Les Halles built in 1187. Back then it was known as the Chapel of Saint Agnes, but was changed to Saint-Eustache in 1303 after the church received relics (which are still there) relating to 2nd-century Roman general Placidus who was burned along with his family for converting to Christianity.
The first stone of the current structure was laid in 1532 and a lengthy construction followed until it was finally consecrated in 1637. Next, proof that dodgy builders are not a modern phenomenon, two chapels were built in 1655 that nearly brought the whole thing tumbling down, and coupled with significant damage sustained in the French Revolution and then a fire in 1844, the church arrived at the mid point of the 19th century in a sorry state and in need of serious repairs.
Whereas sister church Notre Dame had two saviours to champion her restoration in the same era (Napoleon and Victor Hugo), Saint Eustache had one in the form of architect Victor Baltard, the same chap responsible for the design of the iconic Zola-era Les Halles market pavilions just next door. He oversaw the church’s complete restoration between 1846 and 1854, and despite another fire in 1871 and revisions of the façade in 1928/29, its Gothic exterior, and Renaissance and classical interior remain happily intact today.
Head inside for some quiet contemplation by all means, but take in some of its most famous charms too, including the beautiful Chapel of the Virgin (pictured above, right), France’s biggest pipe organ, its huge vaulted ceilings and a plaque commemorating Mozart’s mother, who was buried here in 1778. In a nod to the food heritage associated with the area, don’t miss either the Chapel des Charcutiers (Chapel of the Butchers) dedicated to the tradesmen of the quartier. I’ve never seen pork butchery depicted in a stained glass window before, and I bet you haven’t either. Food takes on a more philanthropic guise at this time of year as it’s the site of a soup kitchen serving 32,000 meals each year between December 1st and March 31st.
If you really can’t resist the bright lights of the shopping centre, bear in mind that Saint Eustache is a patron saint of hunters, so maybe he has something to do with your predatory consumerist urges. But he’s also one of the figures depicted on the Jägermeister logo too, and I know which one I’d choose…
2 Impasse Saint-Eustache, 75001. For more info, click here